LINCOLN — A column of human bodies, tangled and entwined and swarmed by pigeons, is the image that greets you at the entrance of “New Formations,” at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum. The tower, convened by the artist Alicia Framis, was assembled in 1997 in Amsterdam as an emblem of visceral protest.
She called it “Walking Monument,” and it briefly occupied a space vacated by the Dutch National Monument to the nation’s war dead, which had been removed for restoration. The teetering stack of humanity stood for mere minutes, questioning what “public” space really meant. Dam Square, the National Monument’s home, had become a symbol of a different kind in 1980, when, on the occasion of Queen Beatrix’s coronation, Dutch security forces violently clashed with huge crowds protesting the country’s homeless crisis at the monument’s feet. Where the monument had stood in stony silent tribute to the dead, the human tower embodied the power, and fragility, of life.
Framis’s piece is a fitting emblem for this show more broadly. Stirring and precarious, it sets a stage for a range of affecting work gathered together under a wobbly premise. “New Formations,” the big introductory text on the wall tells you, explores how artists transform “popular, public rituals” — protest, sporting events, parades — “into new artforms.” That’s broad enough to impart only a vague sense of a thesis. But I’ll take it. The payoff is worth it.
“New Formations” falls under three rubrics: “Pyramids,” “Poses,” and “Processions.” Each section is introduced by a collage of age-yellowed snapshots of people at collective play, a subtle reminder that goofing off in front of a camera is not an invention of the smartphone era. Beneath them, curator Sarah Montross has grouped works with loose thematic resonance. Being broad, each contains a gamut of form: photography, whether documentary, digitally manipulated, or fastidiously staged; video, captured by happenstance, meticulously planned, or culled from archives.
Inevitably, the divisions between them bleed and fade. At its core, the exhibition is unified, and powerfully, by the human body as an expression of both strength and vulnerability in the public sphere. There’s little unity to be found between a public protest and a sporting event — one is plaintive, strident; the other tensely exhilarating — but both take their toll on the body as muscles tense, voices strain, and cortisol flows. “New Formations” is potent reminder that, whatever the mind may imagine, the body is our solitary tool to navigate the hard realities of the world.
That makes collective action important, and “New Formations” embraces it almost instinctually. In the show, joined forces produce inherently powerful results, whether in Framis’s picture or the work of the American photographer Tyler Mitchell, whose photograph of Black teens hula-hooping in formation conveys a stoic solidarity.
Solitude, meanwhile, exposes vulnerability. For me, the most powerful work in the show is Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi’s “Suspension,” 2020, a video composite of young female gymnasts captured in the moments before their routines. The camera closes in on young faces shellacked in makeup and clenched in expressions that waver between intense focus and outright terror. The isolation is palpable, bristling — young women on solitary display, burdened by the anxiety of not blowing it. (The piece’s full title names them each of the two-dozen or so athletes individually).
Nkosi was intentional in selecting Black and brown girls, deepening the work’s meaning; gymnastics, the accompanying text says, has long been a “white-dominated sport” that, Nkosi says, defines “what bodies should look like, what perfection is, what the ideal human is.” That context amplifies both the pressure to achieve and a one-dimensional reading of the achiever. Nkosi pairs her video with a painting of faceless brown-skinned gymnasts clustered in a sunny, simplified gym environment, indicating society’s skin-deep valuation of an athlete based only on results. Think for a moment of the vitriol faced by the great American gymnast Simone Biles during the 2021 Summer Olympics for daring to withdraw from an event over mental health concerns, and you’ll see what I mean.
The piece gnawed at my heart, a standout in an exhibition that toggles between emotional depth and the surface fascination of formal play. The best of the latter (in a good way) are Pelle Cass’s dizzying photo-composites, where divers and gymnasts appear to crowd the airspace above the water or mat in death-defying aerial swarms. Technically elegant — Cass used multiple exposures from the same vantage to digitally layer the atheletes’ bodies in the same space — but visually hectic, the images are thoroughly captivating one-liners. They explode with the one-dimensionality of achievement that Nkosi’s work undercuts.
It’s a nice moment, particularly as it rubs up against Dara Friedman’s “Dancer,” 2011, a free-form chain of footage of spontaneous street performance in Miami: dozens of unrelated episodes of bodies in public physical revelry. In one, a woman tiptoes naked along the edge of a rooftop; immediately following, two kids bounce, skip, and cartwheel along the sidewalk in a blithely impromptu pageant of the exuberance of youth. They all share one thing: the blissful abandon of bodies moving through urban space, a fraught and chaotic realm of forced interaction where, nonetheless, joy can be found.
Its nearby counterweight, a series of photographs by Senga Nengudi, captures a pageant of a different kind: “Ceremony for Freeway Fets,” 1978, a performance under an Interstate overpass in downtown Los Angeles. The performers, members of the Black artists’ collective Studio Z founded in the early 1970s, played music and performed imagined rituals on the city’s invisible fringes.
Tucked on the lower level, the final small spaces of “New Formations” reiterates its odd polemic. Heather Rasmussen’s photographic dissections of her own dancerly form fill one of the galleries; they’re weirdly clinical and morbidly surreal. To be frank, I loved them — just not here, where their chilly visual tease seems to fall far outside the show’s nominal public, performative frame.
Tucked next door, Steffani Jemison’s pair of videos make the discord plain: One, grainy and shot hand-held, tracks parkour athletes as they jag and tumble one by one through the ragged urban landscape of South Central Los Angeles —Jemison’s explicit visual comment on the notion of Black men fleeing police.
The other, “In Succession,” 2019, shot in vivid, silvery black-and-white, embodied for me the show’s spectrum of intent in holistic fashion. Its split screen captures in languorous slow motion the building of a human pyramid, shot almost exclusively as a close-up of one man’s face. His brow deepens; his mouth stiffens in a frown of exertion. A hand, then a shoe appear on his shoulder, climbing over and up. These earthly vessels struggle and strain and suffer alone, it seems to say; but together, we get through.
Through March 13. deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, 51 Sandy Pond Road, Lincoln. 617-542-7696, thetrustees.org/place/decordova